Archive for November, 2011
In the last week, we’ve seen the release of several major reports of torture in the Middle East countries of Bahrain and Syria and in India.
The government-commissioned report in Bahrain documents the widespread use of torture (PDF) following the crackdown on demonstrators in the Persian Gulf country. Since February, security forces have “followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody.” The several hundred page report will be used to form a committee and make recommendations, the government says.
We have called on Bahrain to do so – to follow through with the promises of reform and hold perpetrators to account.
A damning report through the UN Committee against Torture has described the widespread use of torture in Syria, including torture, murder, and mutilation of children in custody: “Of particular concern are reports referring to children who have suffered torture and mutilation while detained; as well as cases of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; arbitrary detention by police forces and the military; and enforced and involuntary disappearances,” said Committee Chair Claudio Grossman. Read our previous post on the experience of a Syrian human rights defender and torture survivor.
Finally, a third report (PDF) from the Asian Centre for Human Rights has found that more than 14,000 people in India have died while in custody, most due to torture, in the last 10 years. The report states that, “Torture remained widespread and integral to law enforcement” in India and is often used to “extract confession, demand bribes, settle personal scores etc”. This is an astonishing figure – and their report provides individual testimonies and reports of deaths in custody – and reflects the ongoing situation of ‘torture as usual’ in many countries around the world. The organisation is demanding the enactment of the Prevention of Torture Bill, 2010.
We hope that the documentation of torture through reporting mechanisms will ensure change happens on the ground and that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes will be held accountable.
Peter Helmers (IRCT’s Head of Programmes) and I recently travelled to Manila, in the Philippines, to take part in the annual Asian regional seminar of IRCT member centres which, this year, focused on the subject of access to justice.
The Philippines is an apt country in which to discuss justice for torture survivors: its relatively new law on torture – supported by a set of implementing rules and regulations – positions the country as one of the most advanced in the region in the struggle against torture and attempts to prevent it. It provides an example for other countries to follow, and much of the credit for this advanced legal and regulatory framework goes to our Filipino member centres the Medical Action Group – hosts of the regional meeting – and Balay.
Access to justice for victims of torture can be a complicated area, but luckily, over the course of the seminar we had the opportunity to learn from those working in the field about what it means and how it can be achieved. Not only were our colleagues and friends from many Asian countries able to join the seminar, but several local NGOs enriched the learning experience for us all.
According to international standards, justice for victims of torture entails access to restitution, satisfaction, guarantee of non-repetition, compensation and rehabilitation. This means that victims should, to the fullest extent possible, have restitution to the status quo before torture happened; their suffering should be acknowledged and perpetrators should be punished by the law; they should receive the guarantee that no-one will ever torture them or anybody else again; they should receive financial compensation and they should receive medical and psycho-social rehabilitation.
That’s the theory anyway, but, what does this mean in practice? Well, this is where it can become complicated! Of course, international standards are recognized by all as the ones to follow, yet, they can be difficult to achieve in practice. Limits are imposed by the national socio-political context that differs from country to country and sometimes even within the same country.
One of the great influencing factors in accessing justice can be the presence of a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) which often balance the immediate needs of survivors with peace and confidence-building measures in post-conflict situations. Another important influencing factor identified was the possibility to file legal complaints in front of national courts. In some countries legal advocacy for torture victims is hindered by either fear of immediate retaliation or judicial complacency regarding crimes committed by police forces and / or the army.
Of course, the concept of justice has differing meanings across national and cultural boundaries. When we asked each other what justice meant, one of the participants wrote the following: social justice, spiritual justice, cultural justice, customary justice and collective community justice. What characterizes all of these is a strong community oriented approach which may reflect what some perceive to be the rather individualistic nature of many of the legal standards developed around the status of victim of torture.
Moreover, the very idea of who is ‘generally’ a victim of torture might influence the concept of justice. While the traditional image of the torture survivor is one of a political opponent, the torture survivor in Asia is often the worker, the farmer, the indigenous person, the person of low socio-economic status. Is then the concept of justice larger than the one many have focused on in the past?
Well…it’s certainly food for thought, and we look forward to furthering exploring with our Asian member centres, how the concept can be further developed as they continue their day-to-day work of helping torture survivors overcome the trauma inflicted on them.
Parallel to the extremely notorious cases of mass torture in Libya and Bahrain, torture continues to be practiced under the “usual” conditions around the world. Radio France Internationale reports police torture in Nigeria. The article points out two common patterns of torture as practiced in everyday life: firstly, that police in several countries are “under intense pressure from the government and the public to deliver. This means they sometimes resort to using crude tactics to get results.” A similar story came to us from Pakistan (see Police brutally torture youth, break hands, legs). Secondly, this is happening above all in countries where a large part of the population lives in poverty. This important aspect has been underlined in the recent Declaration on Poverty and Torture issued by the IRCT Council. In fact, poverty is one of the major underlying factors that keeps people perpetually vulnerable to torture, and tends to increase or deepen poverty by stripping victims of the ability to continue their livelihoods.
In times of remarkable political transformations and the mass torture that accompanies it, let’s not forget “torture as usual”.
Research in action: giving evidence of ongoing torture in Sri Lanka to the UN Committee against Torture
I didn’t expect to find myself, after a little over a year at Freedom from Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture), giving evidence to a special session of the UN Committee against Torture following our report on ongoing torture in Sri Lanka. As the researcher of the report I had the task of reviewing the clinical evidence documented in our medico-legal reports, physical and psychological, of FFT’s Sri Lankan clients who had been tortured since the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka in 2009. These cases revealed in distressing detail, that a wide range of different forms of torture continue to be used in Sri Lanka with apparent impunity, and that severe suffering is being inflicted on victims leaving devastating psychological and physical consequences.
I was lucky enough, thanks to the support of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), to be able to present our evidence in person to the Committee at the special NGO briefing, held in advance of the public examination of the Sri Lankan government delegation. Although the briefing session was held in the formal and imposing headquarters of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, the Committee endeavoured to create an open dialogue. NGO representatives from different European states and from Sri Lanka highlighted their key concerns and the issues they hoped would be addressed with the government delegation and the Committee asked us questions to clarify the evidence we had brought to them.
The session, only an hour long, was over too soon for any of us to feel really satisfied, including some of the members of the Committee it seemed, as they stayed behind in their lunch hour to continue our discussions. The Committee Rapporteurs had attempted to manage our expectations of the public session to follow, saying that they would need weeks to do justice to the wealth of information in front of them and the issues of concern to be addressed with the Sri Lankan government, instead of the few hours they had.
I left feeling that our evidence had been well received by the Committee, detailing as it did specific torture allegations in forensic detail, albeit on the basis of anonymity for the protection of our clients. NGO colleagues also welcomed our report, saying that they hoped we would continue to make use of the incredibly rich resource of evidence contained in our medico-legal reports. Although the face to face session with the Committee was brief, being there in person clearly focused their attention on our written submission and provided me with the opportunity to answer their questions.
Freedom from Torture followed up with the launch of a public version of our report and a package of media work (including with Channel 4 and the Guardian) ahead of CAT’s open session with the Sri Lankan government to ensure that our concerns – and the Committee’s scrutiny – were highlighted publicly. We were then able to follow this with advocacy, targeting our own government whom we have called on to take action to ensure they are not returning Sri Lankan refused asylum seekers to a risk of torture. It made such a difference that IRCT was able to ensure the open session was available by live-streaming so that we – and our media contacts – were able to follow what was happening in real time.
Above all, I felt glad that that the testimony and evidence of the horrific experiences endured by our clients, who generously allowed us to make use of this information, could contribute powerfully to the efforts of those who are seeking to hold the government of Sri Lanka to account and most importantly to their efforts to prevent torture from continuing to be perpetrated there in the future.
A huge thank you to Asger from IRCT for all the advice and support in preparation for the CAT session and in Geneva!
Jo Pettitt, Researcher, Freedom from Torture
China does not fall under our radar very often, but today a very interesting piece on torture in China caught our attention. The German Der Spiegel tells the story of the poet Liao Yiwu and presents his recently published memoir. In his memoir, forbidden to be published in China, Liao Yiwu reveals the abuses and torture he suffered during four years in prison.
When you think you’ve heard everything there is to hear about Guantánamo, here comes a new angle. The Russian daily Pravda reports that Guantanamo is the world’s most expensive jail, using $800,000 for each of the 171 detainees.
Finally, the Bahraini Muscat Daily published exclusive interviews with two Bahraini women medics. These women, who were sentenced to 15 years each in jail for their alleged role in the anti-government protests in Manama early this year, have revealed that they were severely tortured during their detention.
On Saturday evening three of the the Republican candidates for the US Presidency expressed their support for torture. In fact, they came out in support of waterboarding, claiming it wasn’t torture at all.
We find this deeply disturbing in light of the consensus that waterboarding clearly is torture.
US columnist Frank Bruni also strongly criticised the candidates’ statements, in his words: “If we truly believe ourselves to be exceptional, a model for all the world and an example for all of history, then why would we practice torture? “
Let us be clear again: torture is never justified. Under any circumstances. In any place. At any time.
I’ve just returned from the IRCT 2011 Council Meeting in London, where representatives from across the IRCT’s membership met to discuss issues affecting our global movement and offered regional perspectives on the work against torture going on all over the world. It was an inspiring meeting, and I was planning on writing about it for this blog, however, Andy Branch of our UK member centre and host for our meeting - Freedom from Torture – has beaten me to it on with an excellent piece on their blog!
I think his piece sums up the mood of the event excellently, and highlights the value in so many people from all over the world united in our vision of a world without torture getting together and exchanging knowledge.
Thank you Andy, and thanks to all of the staff at Freedom from Torture for being such gracious hosts to us in London.
Scott is the IRCT’s Head of Communications.
We have mostly been focused on our own news this week, as we announced earlier today – our Declaration on Poverty and Torture we hope will change the way states and international bodies look at this problem. Also in the news this week:
Manfred Nowak, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the IRCT Patron, was interviewed by the Pakistan Daily Times in a Q&A session. We suggest reading the whole interview, but here are some highlights:
So, I think, torture is practiced in more than 90% of all countries in all regions of the world; big or small, dictatorship or democracy. I would say that in more than half the countries of the world, torture is widespread, or even systematic. And that is a very, very negative and disturbing conclusion.
President Bush and his administration have paid the world a very, very negative service by undermining the absolute prohibition of torture. I spoke to very high level officials in other countries and they say that if America is torturing openly, why shouldn’t we?
It’s the same with death penalty, there are always people who argue that death penalty has a deterrent effect, no, it’s the opposite, and it has a brutalising effect.
…Found evidence that strongly suggests the participation of security forces in more than 170 cases of torture, 39 “disappearances,” and 24 extrajudicial killings since Calderón took office in December 2006.
We, the undersigned,
Council Members of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), representing health professionals and other relevant professionals who provide multidisciplinary rehabilitation for victims and survivors of torture throughout the world, gathered at the Annual Council Meeting in London, United Kingdom, 9 and 10 November 2011,
are alarmed by the level of violence, including torture, that currently occurs in all regions of the world and specially in situations of conflict and social unrest, and that is often related to poverty, defined as a human condition characterized by sustained or chronic deprivation of resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other human rights.
Bearing in mind,
that all dimensions of poverty perpetuate an enduring state of marginalisation, diminished rights, and reduced protections that make an individual more vulnerable to torture and ill treatment;
that torture has complex and far reaching consequences on physical, psychological, social and economic well-being of its victims. The debilitating consequences of torture affect the victim’s ability to earn and thus provide for the victim and the family and to further contribute to society;
that in general, official State policies, including development policies and programmes, have thus far failed to adequately address the link between poverty and torture, to fulfil the Millennium Development Goals, and to break the vicious cycle that poverty and torture create; and
that women and men, groups or communities historically subjected to discrimination face compounded violations to their rights when they do not have the financial means to defend their rights or to access the health, justice and employment sectors in conditions of equality.
that poverty is one of the major underlying factors that keeps people perpetually vulnerable to torture, and that torture tends to increase or deepen poverty by stripping victims of the ability to continue their livelihoods;
that poor persons are disproportionately more vulnerable to torture and ill treatment, in particular in situations of detention and lack of legal representation.
Urgently call upon States,
Read the full declaration here.
This is a declaration from the IRCT council members, representatives from all continents, regions, backgrounds.
This is hugely exciting development for the IRCT and for the future of international discussion on root causes, and therefore, also how to address the problem of torture. Simply put, the poor are tortured. Because they are easy targets, because they cannot buy their way out of detention, because their rights have not been respected.
And we call upon States to take steps to take the responsibility to eradicate torture and to effectively ensure the rehabilitation of torture victims.